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Topical Questions

Volume 692: debated on Tuesday 20 April 2021

May I first pay tribute to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, whose life’s work was to serve our country, often on the world stage?

Since the last oral questions, I have attended the UK-Gibraltar joint ministerial council and reaffirmed our commitment to delivering a treaty with the EU that safeguards UK sovereignty and the prosperity of Gibraltar and the surrounding region. I have also visited Indonesia and Brunei to forge closer ties and to join the second UK Association of Southeast Asian Nations ministerial dialogue as the UK pursues ASEAN dialogue partner status.

My constituent David Cornock tragically lost his son in Thailand in 2019. Mr Cornock is adamant that his son did not commit suicide, but was murdered—and, after supporting him for 18 months in this case, I am inclined to agree with his assessment. The FCDO insists that in order to get Mr Cornock’s son’s case reopened and properly investigated, the only avenue for my constituent is personally to petition the Thai Attorney General, with no diplomatic support. The Department provided a list of 10 Thai lawyers to expedite this; six declined, two did not respond, one did not speak English and the other wanted £25,000 upfront.

Moreover, thanks to the Minister for Asia, the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), I have since established that there is not a single instance where a UK citizen has successfully petitioned the Thai Attorney General in the way determined by the FCDO. Will the Secretary of State agree to take up this case with the Thai ambassador here in London, and, having due regard for diplomatic norms and the sovereignty of internal justice, review this wholly unrealistic protocol by the FCDO? Will he also meet me and my constituent to discuss the matter?

First of all, we at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office try to give the best advice that we can as to how such cases—I have dealt with a number of these difficult cases over the years—can be raised most effectively. If it is viewed that there is political interference, it is often counterproductive. Of course, we will take another look at the case to see whether there is anything more that we can do. We give advice in good faith as to the best and most effective means to try to secure the outcome that the hon. Gentleman wants for his constituents.

The 2001 UN conference against racism in Durban degenerated into hatred, antisemitism and criticism of Israel that was excessive, disproportionate and unfair, so will the UK Government boycott Durban IV, which marks the 20th anniversary of that disgraceful 2001 conference? (914495)

We will obviously attend the UN General Assembly in September. In relation to the Durban declaration and its anniversary, let me reassure my right hon. Friend that—as we demonstrated at the Human Rights Council recently on the approach that we took to items 7 and 2—we will not support any partisan or political attacks on Israel. I reassure her that the Government are absolutely crystal clear in our condemnation of and opposition to any and all forms of antisemitism.

As we have heard this morning, this year the UK hosts the global COP summit and the G7, which give us a wonderful opportunity to lay out our leadership and ambition on a world stage. If the Government are really serious about tackling the climate emergency, where is the leadership on the deforestation question in Brazil, where, under the leadership of Jair Bolsonaro, we have seen a rise up to the highest levels of deforestation and impact on indigenous communities in more than a decade? Has the Foreign Secretary raised this directly with Jair Bolsonaro? If not, in broad terms what is he doing at an institutional level to try to address that desperate issue?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Deforestation is a key plank of our agenda for COP26, and I have raised it in Indonesia, where it is obviously a big issue, and in parts of Asia. I also raised it recently in a virtual meeting I had with Foreign Minister Araújo of Brazil, although he is no longer in place. The key will be galvanising international support to make sure that the measures those countries take are not economically damaging to them, while at the same time being environmentally sustainable for the world. We have a key plank of work that is focused on that area, and I can reassure the hon. Lady that it is a major component of our approach to COP26.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils, I thank the FCDO for its work in securing the new resolution on accountability in Sri Lanka at the recent UN Human Rights Council sessions. However, from speaking to Tamils in Carshalton and Wallington and across the UK, there is obviously still more to do, so could the Minister outline what steps the UK is taking to implement the UN high commissioner’s recommendations on applying sanctions and travel embargos and filing cases against alleged war crimes under universal jurisdiction? (914498)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. The Minister of State for South Asia and the Commonwealth, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, set out the UK’s serious concerns about human rights in Sri Lanka in a statement at the UN Human Rights Council on 25 February, and the UK has welcomed the adoption in March of a new UN Human Rights Council resolution on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka. That UK-led resolution enhances the UN’s role in monitoring the situation and collecting evidence of human rights violations that can be used in future accountability processes. Just quickly on the point about sanctions, though, it is important to recognise that it would not be appropriate to speculate on any further designation.

I agreed with the Prime Minister when he said that his greatest mistake when he was Foreign Secretary was in relation to Russia—that he had misplayed the relationship with Russia—and I want to return to that point. We now know for certain that the two men who were involved in the Skripal poisoning, or attempted poisoning and inadvertent successful poisoning, were GRU officers, almost certainly acting on the direct command of the Kremlin, and that those two officers were also involved in a murder and an explosion in the Czech Republic. It seems extraordinary to me that this has taken so many years to come out. Why has there been such a delay in this information coming to the public, and what are we going to do to make sure that murderers on Putin’s payroll are not strolling the streets of every capital in Europe? (914499)

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Czech explosion that led to the attribution was many years ago. The decision to attribute was the product of a long investigation by the Czech authorities, and he will have seen that we stood absolutely full square in solidarity with our Czech friends.

In the ways that I explained earlier to the shadow Foreign Minister, the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), we have increased and continue to increase our measures for screening and for accountability, and of course, through the Magnitsky sanctions—which the hon. Gentleman himself has championed—we have a new means of targeting human rights abuses. To the extent that they also impinge on dirty money, which in fairness the hon. Member for Wigan spoke about, I have already made clear that we will shortly be introducing an extension to the Magnitsky sanctions to cover that.

Eight years ago, my constituent Tyrell Matthews-Burton —a young man with a bright future ahead of him—was brutally murdered in Greece. His family have fought tirelessly to bring those responsible to justice, yet despite convictions, the Metropolitan Police tell us that the Greek authorities are the stumbling block. Will the Foreign Secretary meet me and Tyrell’s family, so that we can prove that it does not matter what colour a person’s skin, this country will always fight for justice for its citizens? (914503)

Absolutely. We take the consular work that we do for citizens abroad exceptionally seriously. We deal with those cases day in, day out, often below the media or public radar. I am very happy for Ministers in the Department to look again at the case she has raised to see whether there is anything further we can do. That is very difficult and always very complex, even in European countries, but we must be able to satisfy ourselves that we are doing everything we can to provide closure and accountability for the families affected.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking with his international counterparts to prepare for the G7 leaders’ summit this summer in Cornwall? (914504)

I know my hon. Friend has a strong vested interest in that conference, beyond her international interest. Ahead of the leaders summit—I let her and the House know—I will be convening the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers meeting from 3 to 5 May here in London. That will be a very important opportunity to build on and tee up our work on equitable access to vaccines in relation to the pandemic, our ambitious global girls education targets, the rigorous and ambitious approach we are taking to climate finance, and commitment to media freedoms, human rights and democracy.

On the G7, what are the Government doing to address the global debt crisis engulfing the world’s poorest countries? Might I suggest that one way to show leadership on that would be for this House to pass legislation to compel private creditors to participate in debt relief and to stop them suing for debt recovery under UK law? (914510)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his engagement in this issue. We are already doing an awful lot on debt suspension, most importantly on the common framework and on those remaining countries such as Somalia and Sudan, which were left out of the HIPC—heavily indebted poor countries—process, but there are other parties and complexities, China’s sovereign debt being one of them and multilaterals another, as well as sovereign nations’ private sector debt, which we would encourage to participate where appropriate.

The covid-19 pandemic has shone a depressing light on the digital poverty that exists in developing countries. Without access to the internet, millions of children across the world have lost thousands of hours of education. Sadly, the problem is even more acute for girls. What action is being taken to ensure that the UK uses its presidency of the G7 and the Global Partnership for Education to enable the most marginalised children, in particular girls, to return to school and catch up with their lost learning? (914505)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight this important issue. She takes a very keen interest in girls education and 2021 is a crucial year for it, with multiple opportunities for us to take co-ordinated action with our international partners to address the learning losses from covid-19. That is why the UK has put girls education at the heart of our G7 presidency. We are working with G7 members to champion two SDG 4 milestone targets: 40 million more girls in school and 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10 in low and lower-middle income countries over the next five years. The UK with Kenya will also host the global education summit in July to mobilise much needed financing.

I would like to declare an interest: a visit to Colombia with Justice for Colombia. In February, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reported on the alleged involvement of Colombian security forces in the deaths of at least 13 protestors last year. There have also been worrying reports of an increased number of protestors losing their sight after being hit with projectiles fired by police, including 19-year-old Yuri Camargo and 22-year-old Miguel Angel Linares, both in 2019. Will the Secretary of State raise the importance of full legal and disciplinary investigations of those cases with his Colombian counterparts? (914513)

First, we really welcome the Colombian Government’s continuing commitment to the full implementation of the 2016 peace agreement with FARC. We will continue to support them in doing so. Colombia is an FCDO human rights priority country. We regularly raise concerns with the Colombian Government and at the UN. We will continue to do so. Our embassy will continue to support at-risk human rights defenders, social leaders and ex-combatants, and will work to tackle the root causes of the violence.

It is brilliant to see the UK and Israel working so closely together in the roll-out of our world- leading vaccination programmes. Israel has vaccinated almost half its population with both doses of the covid vaccine, so will the Minister provide an update on the status of discussions with Israel on establishing a travel corridor arrangement? (914507)

I thank my hon. Friend for that very topical question. We welcome the success of the Israeli vaccination programme, and the co-operation between the UK and Israel on covid continues throughout the pandemic. On 17 May, the Prime Minister will announce further travel measures and which countries will fit into which traffic-light categorisations. We are looking to see how we can share health data, and we are all looking forward to hearing from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster following his visit, to get some real-life examples on what we can do here in the UK.

I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business.

Sitting suspended.